De-emphasizing Learning Styles:
Making Sure Individual Learning
Supports Team Performance
Victor R. McCraw
June 28, 2019
Victor R. McCraw
June 28, 2019
What if I told you there was an opportunity to increase training effectiveness and reduce costs at the same time? Would you be interested?
Assuming your answer is “Yes,” great! Let me explain why and how.
Don’t panic. I am not suggesting we abandon learning style considerations altogether. They may contribute to learning enhancements for some learners in some cases (Goulding & Syed-Khuzzan, 2014, p. 156). However, I am suggesting that we de-emphasize learning styles in our job training efforts. Here’s why.
Yes, it is confusing. The term ‘learning style’ is not well-defined, partly due to confusion between the terms “cognitive style” and “learning style” (Scott, 2010, p. 6). Cognitive style refers to mental processing in general, and learning style is often used generically to mean both, in relation to learning (Evans, Cools, & Charlesworth, 2010, p. 467). Assessments of employees’ learning styles indicate how they (and we) think they learn, is not how they really learn. In fact, “students’ preferences and evaluation of their own learning tend to be highly inaccurate when compared to actual learning” (Smith, 2008, p. 59).
Cognitive psychologists agree that “empirical evidence supporting the concept of learning styles-based instruction” is lacking (Cuevas, 2015, p. 308). Research has not debunked learning style theory, but it does not support the emphasis we have placed on it (Cuevas, 2015, p. 330). Aragon, Johnson, and Shaik (2002) concluded that “students learn equally well regardless of learning style, provided that the course is developed around adult learning theory and sound instructional design methodologies” (p. 227, as cited in Mestre, 2010, p. 827).
Learning style theory is inexplicably popular, with buy-in from “more than 90 percent of teachers in various countries” (Khazan, 2018, para. 5). “It becomes a case of everyone believes it because, well, everyone believes it” (2006, n.p., as cited in Scott, 2010, p. 11). Undefined, unproven and inexplicably popular – we cannot afford to continue emphasizing individual learning styles and expecting better team performance.
Learning style theory fails to deliver as advertised (Willingham, Hughes, & Dobolyi, 2015, p. 269). We should shift our focus from individualized training to improved team performance. On-the-job training and mentorship-based instruction will allow employees to learn effectively while practicing and performing their actual job tasks; learning by doing is proven to be effective (Mestre, 2010, p. 827; Urick, 2016, p. 54). The cost savings will be two-fold: 1) decrease training costs by not paying “for an instructor and/or technology,” and 2) “[get work] done while the training is occurring” (Frazis & Loewenstein, 2007, as cited in Urick, 2016, p. 54). This approach will de-emphasize workplace learning style theory, and emphasize practical, productive workplace performance.
Cuevas, J. (2015). Is learning styles-based instruction effective? A comprehensive analysis of recent research on learning styles. Theory and Research in Education, 13(3), 308 –333. https://doi.org/10.1177/1477878515606621
Evans, C., Cools, E., & Charlesworth, Z. M. (2010, July 7). Learning in higher education – how cognitive and learning styles matter. Teaching in Higher Education, 15(4), 467-478. https://doi.org/10.1080/13562517.2010.493353
Goulding, J., & Syed-Khuzzan, S. (2014). A study on the validity of a four-variant diagnostic learning styles questionnaire. Education + Training, 56(2-3), 141-164. https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-11-2012-0109
Khazan, O. (2018, April 11). The myth of ’Learning Styles’. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/the-myth-of-learning-styles/557687/
Mestre, L. S. (2010). Matching up learning styles with learning objects: What’s effective? Journal of Library Administration, 50(7-8), 808-829. https://doi.org/10.1080/01930826.2010.488975
Scott, C. (2010). The enduring appeal of ‘learning styles’. Australian Journal of Education, 54, 5–17. https://doi.org/10.1177/000494411005400102
Smith, S. (2008). Why follow levels when you can build bridges [Supplemental material]. In S. Han (Comp.), OPWL 536 Spring 2019 (pp. 58-62). Boise, ID: Boise State University.
Urick, M. (2016). Adapting training to meet the preferred learning styles of different generations. International Journal of Training and Development, 21(1), 53-59. https://doi.org/10.1111/ijtd.12093
Willingham, D. T., Hughes, E. M., & Dobolyi, D. G. (2015). The scientific status of learning styles theories. Teaching of Psychology, 42(3), 266-271. https://doi.org/10.1177/0098628315589505